By Mr. Kisaka Alex, Head of Programs, Extend a Life Initiative Uganda
It was in the streets of Kawaala Village in the Rubaga Divison of Kampala City in Uganda, where Fatumah, aged 27 years and the mother to four children, conducted her daily business as a sex worker. Although she’s HIV positive, Fatumah has continued conducting her business to earn a living to look after her children as well as to access treatment.
Raped at age 14 by her uncle, Fatumah was chased out of her home by her father upon his learning of her subsequent pregnancy. “I started in this business of sex work because I had no means of survival, and yet I needed to take care of the pregnancy. Many people were advising me to abort the baby, but I refused because I feared dying.”
Five years ago, Fatumah found out she was HIV positive when she had gone for a checkup at Mulago Hospital. She also found out she was again pregnant. Though she had little hope of ever having the opportunity to see her child grow, she continued to attend her prenatal check-ins at the hospital. She also continued her sex work, as she had no other means of supporting herself or her growing family.
Fatumah describes how continuing with sex work even after one contracts HIV is common. “Most of my colleagues have HIV, and the unfortunate bit of it is that they are very young girls who have now lost a sense of direction and hope.” Since many of the young women’s clients pay more to have sex without a condom, none can say who infected them. “And that’s how we have all become victims of the virus,” she says.
Fatumah’s life, filled with so much pain and tragedy, changed dramatically when she became a beneficiary of The Pride Candles Project. Founded by Gerald Muwonge, a TPP grant recipient, The Pride Candles Project promotes the socio-economic empowerment of sex workers and LGBTQ youth living with HIV and AIDS in Uganda. These youth learn skills in candle-making to enable them to start up income-generating activities and live a life of dignity and self-reliance.
The project came about after a needs assessment of people living with HIV was conducted by Extend A Life Initiatives Uganda, the group that sponsors The Pride Candles Project. Fatumah said that when she was registering to be part of The Pride Candles Project, she was overwhelmed with joy: making candles was her first-choice economic activity identified during the needs assessment because “candles are easy to make. You don’t need a lot of skills, yet they are so marketable that when produced at least someone can be assured of a daily income.”
Since learning how to make candles through the program, Fatumah has immersed herself in the opportunities offered by the project, including a leadership capacity building training. She is now a community volunteer and the chairperson of the Bwaise Candle Self-Help Group, an honor for which she was selected by her peers at the leadership training.
Fatumah is now an instrumental community figure who manages a group of 17 people. She pointed out that being the chairperson of the group has elevated her social status and respect from her colleagues. “As their chairperson, I mobilize them, and we converge every Tuesday evening to make candles from my veranda, and we package it as a group giving each one of us a responsibility of marketing them in the community,” she says.
The candle-making has also created a lot of social cohesion among the group, she states. “For the most part of our lives on the streets, we have always treated each other as enemies as we’d be fighting over clients, and this created a lot of bad blood amongst us.” She says that The Pride Candles Project is now an extra income generating activity that has helped her former enemies to supplement, or even supplant, their street businesses.
“This project is for us all,” emphasized Fatumah, adding that as a team they have by-laws that govern them and how the profits from their candle-making business can be used to support themselves in case one is severely sick and cannot support him or herself by footing the medical bills and transport to the health facility.
And what of Gerald, the founder of this project, who has so profoundly affected the lives of these women and others for positive change? His eyes are firmly fixed on the future. “The organization hopes to invest more in our established community groups by providing them with seed funds to invest in their candle business so as to increase production, sustainability, and self-reliance,” he says.
In addition to providing funds to help the community groups achieve their goals in candle-making, the TPP grant has also attracted more support for the project, including funds from the Planet Romeo Foundation and a grant from the Girl First Fund Foundation. To further support this work, please visit https://www.facebook.com/pages/category/Community-Organization/Extend-a-Life-Initiative-Uganda-Eli-U-1963714337278064/